Friedrich Hölderlin

Friedrich Hölderlin

Infobox Writer
name =Johann Christian Friedrich Hölderlin

caption =
birthdate = birth date|1770|3|20|df=y
birthplace = Lauffen am Neckar, Duchy of Württemberg 1
deathdate = death date and age|1843|6|6|1770|2|20|df=y
deathplace = Tübingen, Germany
occupation = Lyric poet
genre =
movement = Classicism, Romanticism
influences =
influenced =
website =

Johann Christian Friedrich Hölderlin (pronounced|ˈjoːhan ˈkrɪsti.aːn ˈfriːdrɪç 'hœldərliːn in German; March 20, 1770 – June 6, 1843) was a major German lyric poet. His work bridges the Classical and Romantic schools.

Having spent most of his life tormented by mental illness, he suffered great loneliness, and often spent his time playing the piano, drawing, reading, writing, and enjoyed travelling when he had the chance.


Hölderlin was born in Lauffen am Neckar in the Duchy of Württemberg. His father, the manager of a church estate, died when the boy was two years old. He was brought up by his mother, who in 1774 married the Burgomaster of Nürtingen and moved there. He had a full sister, born after their father's death, and a half-brother. His stepfather died when he was nine. He went to school in Denkendorf and Maulbronn and then studied theology at the Tübinger Stift, where his fellow-students included Friedrich Hegel, Friedrich Schelling (who had been a fellow-pupil at his first school) and Isaac von Sinclair. It has been speculated that it was probably Hölderlin who brought to Hegel's attention the ideas of Heraclitus about the union of opposites, which the philosopher would develop into his concept of dialectics. Finding he could not sustain a Christian faith, he declined to become a minister of religion and worked instead as a private tutor. In 1793-94 he met Schiller and Goethe and began writing his epistolary novel "Hyperion". During 1795 he enrolled for a while at the University of Jena where he attended Fichte's classes and met Novalis.

As a tutor in Frankfurt from 1796 to 1798 he fell in love with Susette Gontard, the wife of his employer, the banker Jakob Gontard. The feeling was mutual, and this relationship was the most important in Hölderlin's life. Susette is addressed in his poetry under the name of 'Diotima'. Their affair was discovered and Hölderlin was harshly dismissed. He lived in Homburg from 1798 to 1800, meeting Susette in secret once a month and attempting to establish himself as a poet, but was plagued by money worries, having to accept a small allowance from his mother. He worked on a tragedy in the Greek manner, "Empedokles", producing three versions, all unfinished. Already at this time he was diagnosed as suffering from a severe "hypochondria", a condition that would worsen after his last meeting with Susette Gontard in 1800. After a sojourn in Stuttgart, probably working on his translations of Pindar, at the end of 1800 he found further employment as a tutor in Hauptwyl, Switzerland and then, in 1802, in Bordeaux, at the household of the Hamburg consul. His stay in that French city is celebrated in "Andenken" ("Remembrance"), one of his greatest poems. In a few months, however, he returned home on foot via Paris (where he saw Greek sculptures for the only time in his life). He arrived home in Nürtingen both physically and mentally prostrated. Susette died from influenza in Frankfurt about the same time.

After some time in Nürtingen he was taken to the court of Homburg by Sinclair, who found a sinecure for him as court librarian, but in 1805 Sinclair was denounced as a conspirator and tried for treason. Hölderlin was in danger of being tried too but was declared mentally unfit to stand trial. The state of Hesse-Homburg was dissolved the following year after the Battle of Jena. On 11 September Hölderlin was delivered into the clinic at Tübingen run by Dr Ferdinand Authenreith, inventor of a mask for the prevention of screaming in the mentally ill. [ Constantine (1990), p. 299.] The clinic was attached to the University and the poet Kerner, then studying medicine, was assigned to look after Hölderlin for a while. The following year he was discharged as incurable and given three years to live, but was taken in by the carpenter Ernst Zimmer (a cultured man, who had read "Hyperion") and given a room in his house, which had been a tower in the old city wall, with a view across the Neckar river and meadows. Zimmer and his family cared for Hölderlin until his death, 36 years later. Wilhelm Waiblinger, a young poet and admirer, left a poignant account of Hölderlin's day-to-day life during these long, empty years. Hölderlin continued to write poetry of a simplicity and formality quite unlike what he had been writing up to 1805. As time went on he became a kind of minor tourist attraction and was visited by curious travellers and autograph-hunters. Often he would spontaneously write short verses for such visitors, confining himself to conventional subjects such as Greece, the Seasons, or The Spirit of the Times, pure in versification but almost empty of affect, although a few of these (such as the famous 'The Lines of Life', "Die Linien des Lebens", which he wrote out for his carer Zimmer on a piece of wood [ Constantine (1990), p. 302.] ) have a piercing beauty and have been set to music by many composers. Hölderlin's own family did nothing to support him but instead petitioned (successfully) for his upkeep to be paid by the state. His mother and sister never visited him, and his step-brother only once. His mother died in 1828: his sister and step-brother quarrelled over the inheritance, arguing that too large a share had been allotted to Hölderlin, and tried unsuccessfully to have the will overturned in court. Neither of them attended his funeral; the Zimmer family were his only mourners. His inheritance, including the patrimony left him by his father when he was two, had been kept from him by his mother and was untouched and continually accruing interest. He was a rich man, and never knew it. [ Constantine (1990), p. 300.]


The poetry of Hölderlin, widely recognized today as one of the highest points of German literature, was little known or understood during his lifetime and slipped into obscurity shortly after his death; his illness and reclusion made him fade from his contemporaries' consciousness – and, even though selections of his work were being published by his friends already during his lifetime, it was largely ignored for the rest of the 19th century, Hölderlin being classified merely as a melancholy imitator of Schiller.

In fact, Hölderlin was a man of his time, an early supporter of the French Revolution – in his youth at the Seminary of Tübingen, he and some colleagues from a "republican club" planted a "Tree of Freedom" in the market square, prompting the Grand-Duke himself to admonish the students at the seminary. He was at first carried away by Napoleon, whom he honors in one of his couplets (it should be noted that his exact contemporary Beethoven also initially dedicated his "Eroica" to the Corsican general).

Like Goethe and Schiller, his older contemporaries, Hölderlin was a fervent admirer of ancient Greek culture, but had a very personal understanding of it. Much later, Friedrich Nietzsche would recognize in him the poet who first acknowledged the Orphic and Dionysian Greece of the mysteries, which he would fuse with the Pietism of his native Swabia in a highly original religious experience. For Hölderlin, the Greek gods were not the plaster figures of conventional classicism, but living, actual presences, wonderfully life-giving and, at the same time, terrifying. He understood and sympathized with the Greek idea of the tragic fall, which he expressed movingly in the last stanza of his "Hyperions Schicksalslied" ("Hyperion's Song of Destiny").

In the great poems of his maturity, Hölderlin would generally adopt a large-scale, expansive and unrhymed style. Together with these long hymns, odes and elegies – which included "Der Archipelagus" ("The Archipelago"), "Brot und Wein" ("Bread and Wine") and "Patmos" – he also cultivated a crisper, more concise manner in epigrams and couplets, and in short poems like the famous "Hälfte des Lebens" ("The Middle of Life"). In the years after his return from Bordeaux he completed some of his greatest poems but also, once they were finished, returned to them repeatedly, creating new and stranger versions sometimes in several layers on the same manuscript, which makes the editing of his works problematic. Some of these later versions (and some later poems) are fragmentary, but have astonishing intensity. He seems also to have considered fragments, even with gaps and unfinished lines and unfinished sentence-structure, sometimes as poems in themselves. Both these tendencies (the obsessive revisions, the stand-alone fragments) used to be taken as proof of his mental disorder, but they were to prove very influential on later poets such as Paul Celan. In his years of madness, Hölderlin would occasionally pen ingenuous rhymed quatrains, sometimes of a childlike beauty, which he would sign with fantastic names (most often "Scardanelli") and give fictitious dates from the previous or future centuries.

Dissemination and influence

Hölderlin’s major publication in his lifetime was his novel "Hyperion", which was issued in two parts (1797 and 1799). Various individual poems were published but attracted little attention and in 1799 he also attempted to produce a literary-philosophical periodical, "Iduna". His translations of the dramas of Sophocles were published in 1804 but were generally met with derision over their apparent artificiality and difficulty caused by transposing Greek idioms into German. In the 20th century, theorists of translation such as Walter Benjamin have vindicated them, showing their importance as a new – and greatly influential – model of poetic translation.

Wilhelm Waiblinger, who visited Hölderlin in his tower repeatedly in 1822-3 and depicted him in the protagonist of his novel "Phaëthon", urged the necessity of issuing an edition of his poems and the first collection of his poetry was issued by Ludwig Uhland and C. T. Schwab in 1826. They omitted anything they suspected might be 'touched by insanity'. A copy was given to Hölderlin, but some years later this was stolen by a souvenir-hunter. [ Constantine (1990), p. 300.] A second, enlarged edition with a biographical essay appeared in 1842, the year before Hölderlin’s death.

Only in 1913 did Norbert von Hellingrath, a member of the circle around poet Stefan George, bring out the first two volumes of what eventually became a six-volume edition of Hölderlin's poems, prose and letters (the 'Berlin Edition', "Berliner Ausgabe"). This was to some extent superseded by the Stuttgart Edition ("Grosse Stuttgarter Ausgabe") edited by Friedrich Beissner and Adolf Beck, which began publication in 1943 and was eventually completed in 1986. Meanwhile a third complete edition, the Frankfurt Critical Edition ("Frankfurter Historisch-kritische Ausgabe"), began publication in 1975 under the editorship of Dietrich Sattler. This is still in progress.

Though Hölderlin's hymnic style – dependent as it is on a genuine belief in the divinity – can hardly be transposed without sounding parodistic, his shorter and more fragmentary lyric has exerted its influence in German poetry, from Georg Trakl onwards, and his elegiac mode has found an apt successor in Rainer Maria Rilke. He also had an influence on the poetry of Hermann Hesse and Paul Celan (Celan wrote a poem about Hölderlin, called "Tübingen, January" which ends with the word "Pallaksch" - according to C. T. Schwab, Hölderlin's favourite neologism "which sometimes meant Yes, sometimes No").

Hölderlin was a poet-thinker who wrote, fragmentarily, on poetic theory and philosophical matters. His theoretical works, such as the essays "Das Werden im Vergehen" ("Becoming in Dissolution") and "Urteil und Sein" ("Judgement and Being") are insightful and important if somewhat tortuous and difficult to parse. They raise many of the key problems also addressed by his Tübingen roommates Hegel and Schelling. And, though his poetry was never "theory-driven", the interpretation and exegesis of some of his more difficult poems has given rise to profound philosophical speculation by thinkers as divergent as Martin Heidegger and Theodor Adorno.


Hölderlin's poetry has inspired many composers, one of the earliest examples and perhaps the most famous being the Schicksalslied by Brahms, a setting of "Hyperions Schicksalslied". Other composers to have made settings of his poems include Peter Cornelius, Hans Pfitzner, Richard Strauss ("Drei Hymnen"), Max Reger ("An die Hoffnung"), Richard Wetz ("Hyperion"), Josef Matthias Hauer (who also wrote many piano pieces inspired by individual lines of the poems), Stefan Wolpe, Paul Hindemith (whose his First Piano Sonata is also influenced by Hölderlin's poem 'Der Main'), Benjamin Britten, Hans Werner Henze (whose Seventh Symphony is also partly inspired by Hölderlin), Bruno Maderna ("Hyperion", "Stele an Diotima"), Heinz Holliger (the "Scardanelli-Zyklus"), Hans Zender ("Hölderlin lesen I-IV"), György Kurtág (who planned an opera on Hölderlin), György Ligeti ("Hölderlin-Phantasien"), Hanns Eisler ("Hollywood Liederbuch"), Viktor Ullmann (who wrote settings in Terezin concentration camp), Wolfgang von Schweinitz, Walter Zimmermann ("Hyperion", an epistolary opera) and Wolfgang Rihm. Robert Schumann's late piano suite "Gesänge der Frühe" was inspired by Hölderlin, as was Luigi Nono's string quartet "Stille, an Diotima" and parts of his opera "Prometeo". Carl Orff used Hölderlin's German translations of Sophocles in his operas "Antigone" and "Oedipus der Tyrann".


A 2004 film, "The Ister," is based on Martin Heidegger's 1942 lecture course (published as "Hölderlin's Hymn "The Ister""). The film features Jean-Luc Nancy, Philippe Lacoue-Labarthe, Bernard Stiegler, and Hans-Jürgen Syberberg.

In the 1986 and 1988 Danièle Huillet and Jean-Marie Straub shooted two film "Der Tod Des Empedokles" and "Swarze Sunde" in Sicily both based on the omonimous Holderlin's drama (respectevely for the two film they used the first and third version of the text).

A 1981-82 television drama, "Untertänigst Scardanelli" (The Loyal Scardanelli), directed by Jonatan Briel in Berlin.



* "Hölderlin, Sämtliche Werke" ed. Norbert von Helligrath, Ludwig von Pigenot and Friedrich Seebass (Berlin, Propyläen Verlag, 6 vols, 1913-23)
* David Constantine, "Hölderlin" (Oxford: Clarendon Press 1988, corrected 1990) ISBN 0 19 815169 1

English Translations of Hölderlin

* "Friedrich Hölderlin, Poems & Fragments" translated by Michael Hamburger (3rd edition: London, Anvil Press, 1994) ISBN 0 85646 245 4
* "Friedrich Hölderlin, Selected Poems" translated by David Constantine (Newcastele upon Tyne, Bloodaxe, 1990, expanded 1996) ISBN 1 85224 378 3
* "What I Own: Versions of Hölderlin and Mandelshtam" by John Riley and Tim Longville (Manchester, Carcanet Press, 1998), ISBN 1 85754 175 8

External links

* [ Hölderlin Gesellschaft] (in German, links to English, French, Spanish, and Italian)
* [ Selected Poems of Hölderlin] - English translations
* [ Poems by Friedrich Hölderlin] - English translations
* [ Complete list of Hölderlin's poems in German]

NAME=Hölderlin, Friedrich
ALTERNATIVE NAMES=Hoelderlin, Friedrich
DATE OF BIRTH=March 20, 1770
PLACE OF BIRTH=Lauffen am Neckar, Württemberg
DATE OF DEATH=June 6, 1843

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